It is easy to imagine a lush, extravagant production of Once on This Island, the 1990 musical by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (who would later collaborate on Ragtime and Seussical). Adapted from My Love, My Love, a novel by the Trinidadian-American author Rosa Guy, Island re-imagines “The Little Mermaid” on an unnamed island in the French Caribbean, “where rivers run deep” and the natives sing and pray to four mercurial deities: Asaka, Mother of the Earth; Agwe, God of Water; Erzulie, Goddess of Love; and Papa Ge, Demon of Death.
At Columbia’s Drama Learning Center, director Stephanie Lynn Williams and the Red Branch Theatre Company have taken a more modest approach—partly a function of limited resources, no doubt, yet also appropriate for this particular musical, which is more or less a fairy tale. Once on This Island is presented as a story told to a little girl on a stormy night—in a flash of theatrical magic, the girl (Mycah Brown) becomes the story’s heroine, Ti Moune, an orphan saved by the gods from drowning and raised by loving foster parents. In another flash (deftly staged by Williams), Little Ti Moune gives way to her older self, who wonders, in the moving solo “Waiting for Life,” why her life was spared. “Don’t single me out,” she begs the gods, “And then forget me.”
The gods hear her prayer and decide to intervene. They arrange for Ti Moune, whose dark skin brands her as a peasant, to fall in love with Daniel Beauxhomme, one of the island’s “grand hommes,” the wealthy, light-skinned people who live on the other side of the mountain. Though a seemingly unbridgeable gulf separates Ti Moune from Daniel, she sets off on a journey to find and win her love.
As the older Ti Moune, Anastasia Stewart gives an uneven performance. Her voice is lovely in her middle and lower registers, but she struggles a bit to sustain higher notes. She as well as Michelle Harmon and Wil Lewis III, who play Ti Moune’s foster parents, adopt a measured, almost ritualistic manner of speaking and moving—the effect intensifies the more serious moments, notably Ti Moune’s song of farewell to her parents (“Ti Moune”), but there are trade-offs: for all its high spirits and lively music, the production has surprisingly few laughs, and I suspect the primary reason is its overly formal style.
The show comes most alive when the entire company gathers to sing and dance to Ahrens and Flaherty’s excellent score. Set constructor Corey Brown and scenic painter Erika Hagen frame the action with a jungle-like mesh that seems to sprout from a single, sturdy tree on the apron, but behind the proscenium the stage is bare save for a quartet of vividly painted platforms, one for each god, that double as beds and other set pieces as needed. When Williams and her choreographers—Dawn Barnes, Jason Kimmell, Jenny Male, and Mark Allen, who also serves as dance caption—fill the empty space with motion, the energy pulsing through the theatre is infectious. Though it contains only three musicians, the band conducted by Dustin Merrell produces a full, rich sound.
In addition to the opening number, “We Dance,” which swiftly introduces the island’s religious and caste systems, the ensemble dances give each god an opportunity to steal the spotlight. As Agwe, Cory Jones uses a commanding baritone to conjure a storm in “Rain,” and Samantha McEwen’s Erzulie shines through the beautiful love song, “The Human Heart.” Mark Allen’s Papa Ge is truly creepy as he glides onstage with a retinue of demons to claim a victim in “Forever Yours.” The most joyful music comes from Felicia Akunwafor’s Asaka, who guides Ti Moune to Daniel, accompanied by choruses of birds, frogs, and island breezes, in the rousing celebration of Earth’s bounty, “Mama Will Provide.”